Lack of trust: the key barrier to donating

Published by Julie Verhaar on

Our own research shows that “I do not trust UNICEF to use my donations well” is one of the top 3 claimed reasons for not donating, together with ‘not knowing enough about what UNICEF does’, and other generic reasons such as ‘not being able to afford it’, ‘already giving to other organizations’, and ‘preferring to give people directly’. This probably sounds familiar and shows us how important Trust is when making a donation.

Why is Trust so important?

From a historical perspective, Trust has become more and more important. Mostly because it is increasingly difficult to trust the rapidly growing circle of people and institutions we don’t personally know. In primitive societies and even until the 19th century and in many places well into the 20th century, we interacted mostly face to face with people in our family and small communities.

With the development of large cities and explosion in communication and transportation technologies, our circle of close family and friends became smaller, while our (virtual) circle of personal and professional acquaintances expanded dramatically. We change jobs and residence, we write e-mails and join others on social media platforms without meeting face to face, we put our money in a place not knowing the people in charge, and most of our economic transactions are anonymous. Without trust – the expectation that others will do their job, competently and honestly – we wouldn’t be able to perform all these tasks.

Trust in Relationships

Nowadays fundraisers talk a lot about building a relationship with their donors and supporters. But still in a lot of cases this is limited to sending out appeals and newsletter. Often only talking about how important we (the charities) are.

It is not much better than a car dealer sending the obligate questionnaire, supposedly to improve their customer service. In reality the questionnaire is a Trojan horse wanting to gather as much information from you as possible in order to improve their sales.

Not exactly the way to build trusting relationships.

Trust means a firm belief in the reliability, truth, or ability of someone or something. So being and acting reliable and trustworthy is conditional to building trust. Showing a genuine interest in your donor’s motives is part of that.

How do you get a donor trusting an organization to make good use of his or her money.

Trust is driven by both character and competence

Recently I have been reading The speed of Trust by Stephen M.R. Covey and it has really triggered my thinking on Trust again. Am I a trustworthy person, do I trust my boss, do donors trust us? Covey shows, how greater trust produces better results, at less cost, sooner.

Relationship Trust is all about behaviour…. consistent behaviour. Covey talks about 13 behaviours that build Trust. All 13 behaviours require a combination of both character and competence.

Character-based behaviors:

  1. Talk straight
  2. Demonstrate respect
  3. Create transparency
  4. Right wrongs
  5. Show loyalty

Competency-based behaviors:

  1. Deliver results
  2. Get better
  3. Confront reality
  4. Clarify expectations
  5. Practice accountability

Character & Competence behaviors:

  1. Listen first
  2. Keep commitments
  3. Extend trust

Communicating Trust and not just being trustworthy is critical

An auto service firm added the following statement at the end of one of their advertisements

“You can trust us to do the job for you”

As a result, research showed their Trust score to increase by 33%. Other performance areas saw a clear improvement: Competency + 33%, Quality + 30%, Fair Treatment + 20%, Caring + 11%, and Fair Price + 7%. This is particularly surprising since the company did not make any specific claim that it would do the job right, better, or quickly. It merely stated an expectation. After all, you’d expect any company to do the job it is supposed to do!

So concluding, Trust is important, even more important than most of us probably think. Covey even says it is the one thing that changes everything. You can build trust; you should communicate Trust, and not just be trustworthy.

So, if you want your donors to trust you, remind them that they CAN trust you. Make Trust second nature by practicing the 13 behaviors that drive Trust.

Try it. It will work. Trust me.

The auto service example: Original study: “On the Potential for Advertising to Facilitate Trust in the Advertised Brand” by Fuan Li and Paul W. Miniard. Summarized data can be found in About Face by Dan Hill.

Julie Verhaar

Julie joined UNICEF International at the end of 2010, from Greenpeace International. Before that she had built up the fundraising unit at the Netherlands Red Cross. She has experience across a wide range of fundraising disciplines and was responsible for a number of innovative cross media campaigns. At UNICEF Julie works to help integrate, develop and support the fundraising activities of UNICEF across the National Committees and Country Offices worldwide. Currently, Julie is based in Geneva.


James Long · August 9, 2012 at 14:36


Really interesting post. In my experience trust is a huge issue, especially for less familiar brands. For me the most interesting & difficult competency behaviour that not-for-profits face is to ‘confront reality’.

Looking at the vast majority of fundraising appeals, perhaps especially from the overseas development charities, can we really argue that charities depict the reality of the difficulties their ‘beneficiaries’ face. Please excuse that term but we all know what I mean.

So whether it’s charities using overly dramatic, even manipulative imagery, or charities claiming £2 a month will save a life there’s often a real failing to communicate an impression that marries up with other sources of information – namely the media. As a result charities can look very out of sync and one casualty of that is trust! There’s a clear struggle in wishing to depict reality but also ensuring it’s effective at fundraising

A very interesting and important discussion on this area formed the content of a recent piece of research from the LSE entitled ‘Who Cares? Challenges and opportunities in communicating distant suffering’ .
Well worth a read.

    Julie · August 13, 2012 at 23:35

    Dear James,
    Thank you so much for your reply and sorry for my late response. I will definitely have a look at the research you are mentioning. Thanks for sharing.

    Regarding your comment on charities using overly dramatic, even manipulative imagery, or charities claiming £2 a month will save a life, I agree it is an interesting discussion. We are currently discussing the imagery issue again, what is manipulative and people even use poverty porn as a term. How far do we want/need to go. I do think we need to tell the Truth, what ever we do. So never manipulate any story or picture. But we all know that in some cases the truth is really bad. If we want to make a difference in the world, I think we should find a balance in what and how we communicate. Even as a fundraiser I think we should not only choose to communicate the bad story to raise funds. We should communicate the Truth!

Celine Smith · August 9, 2012 at 16:30

Thanks Julie. Nice blog. We’ll keep the list and make it work.
Trust me :-)

    Julie · August 13, 2012 at 23:37

    Hi Celine,
    I trust you, and I also have the list pinned up on my wall.
    It works!
    Good luck.

Michael Johnston · August 9, 2012 at 16:31

To pick up on James comment, but to reverse the trust issue for UNICEF: it’s their size and perception of government support that has some influence on trust. I’m sure there is a number of prospective donors to UNICEF who wonder about whether such a large institution will spend their money well – and whether they really need it.

Of course, UNICEF does need the financial support but I think the quasi-governmental perception may be at play. Excellent article Julie!

Julie · August 13, 2012 at 23:46

Dear Mike,
Thanks so much for your thoughts. I think in some cases you are right, but the other side of the coin is that because we have been there for a while and we are big, people actually Trust us. We have a track record and show we have been there and are still there working on many difficult issues. People also understand that some issues are not easily solved and they trust organizations like UNICEF to do the job. Even if it is means working in partnership with governments. It is our job to explain (better) how we work with governments, so that all prospective donors will Trust us with their money. But I do recognize that getting all donors might be putting the bar a little bit high.
Even if we need the financial support, as you say.
Warm regards

DB · August 18, 2012 at 02:42

I have indeed read Stephen M.R. Covey’s book, The Speed of Trust. I don’t think you’ve given him enough credit for your article. Those who’ve not read his book are not aware that the bulk of ‘your’ article were his words and thoughts. Next time, perhaps a little more frankness, and perhaps just a book review would be more honest. Ironically, your willingness to take credit for his work leads me to believe that your work cannot be ‘trusted’.

More and more, everyone’s in such a big hurry to write a blog, that they simply regurgitate others’ work and call it writing. Today’s blogs, in a race to become search engine fodder are becoming less credible sources for new information and merely thinly disguised plagiarism by those who actually have little or no original thoughts of their own. This moment in history will be remembered as the time when blogs were recognized for the shameless marketing tool they have become.


    Julie · August 20, 2012 at 17:01

    Hi DB,

    Interesting comment. I am sorry you feel this way as it was not my intention at all! It was the combination of our own research and reading the book that triggered my thinking about this. What lead to using this in my blog. I do not feel willing at all to take credit for his work. I mention clearly that I read his book and I also link the list of his 13 behaviors to his overview, which has a link to his website.

    If you feel so strongly about people writing blogs, why do you read them and respond to them.


Adrian Salmon · August 22, 2012 at 12:34

I wonder whether lack of trust really is the big barrier, or whether in fact it’s a cipher for ‘I don’t really care?’ I’d be interested to know if anyone had ever done research that gave people the option to say ‘I don’t really care that strongly about the work of Charity X’. I suspect it’s a big societal taboo to admit it (makes you look like a bad person!) and citing a more diffuse ‘lack of trust’ is probably easier for most of us!

Frederick Kokot · August 29, 2012 at 00:14

Dear Julie,

just was stumbling across your great website and have to tell you about my own project concerning fundraising for UNICEF:
Did you know that there is a worldwide service for former European currencies that are no longer circulating and thus no longer of direct value for travellers – like German mark, Austrian Schilling, Spanish Peseta, Guilders, Escudos, Irish pound, Slovenian Tolar, etc. to raise funds for UNICEF?
It`s called Euromoney24 (euromoney24.com/donations) and does that for UNICEF Austria: see the reference here http://www.unicef.at/unternehmen.html (as you are speaking of trust)

Maybe this might be of interest for you and your readers (and their friends) as unique idea and an easy way to donate additionally, because no one misses “money” that he didn`t use for over ten years now. Only expense for people would be the postage of the shippment.

Contact me anytime if you need more information.
Kind regards from Austria
Frederick Kokot

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